I don't know about you but, whenever I see trees of green, red roses too, I think to myself:
Tell that fat bastard to go f**k himself.. Why do we give a sh*t..? Screw 'em all.
More of that anon. But, before we get to those four-letter fanfares, half-a-century ago this month - April 1968 - something rather unusual happened in the UK Top 40: An American got to Number One.
That hadn't happened in a while: Ever since Scott McKenzie went to San Francisco with flowers in his hair the previous summer, the Yanks had been frosted out of the top spot in Britain. Whether Londoners (Manfred Mann with "Mighty Quinn", Love Affair with "Everlasting Love"), Scousers (the Beatles with "Hello, Goodbye" and "Lady Madonna"), Northerners (Georgie Fame, "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde"), East Midlanders (Long John Baldry, "Let the Heartaches Begin"), Wiltshire lads (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, "The Legend of Xanadu" - our co-Song of the Week #112), semi-Aussies (the Bee Gees, "Massachusetts"), Anglo-Indians (Engelbert with "The Last Waltz" and Cliff with "Congratulations"), or West Indians with a token Ceylonese (the Foundations, "Baby, Now That I've Found You"), the Number One pop stars were all British subjects - with the exception of Esther and Abi Ofarim with the all-time boffo Israeli mega-smash "Cinderella Rockefella", and even they were born in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.
So the Americans were going through a bit of a dry patch ...until April 24th that year, when the legendary Alan Freeman counted down the BBC's "Pick of the Pops" and there at Number One was:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself
What A Wonderful World...
And, if you're wondering, "Hmm. What hot new American rock act from the hippie heyday was that?", well, the artist in question was born in 1901, and, at the age of 66, became the oldest solo pop star to have a Number One single in the United Kingdom - a record he retains to this day. The singer was American, the arranger was American, the musicians were American, the producer and writers were American ...so it must have been a pretty big hit back home, right?
Not so. At the time it hit Number One in Britain, it had sold fewer than a thousand copies in America. And it's no exaggeration to say that the principal reason we know the song today - and it looms far larger than most of the big Billboard hits of 1968 - is because its UK success saved the number from total obscurity. It's a genuine standard, a late addition to the Great American Songbook, in the sense that zillions of singers take a crack at it - Anne Murray, Joey Ramone, C├ęline Dion, Shane MacGowan, Ziggy Marley - which is more than can be said of "Green Tambourine" or "Tighten Up" or the other hits of '68. And yet almost all versions follow respectfully the template laid down by the man with whom it is forever linked: Louis Armstrong.
One of its writers went back a ways with Satchmo: George Douglas. Who's George Douglas? Well, he doesn't exist. His real name is Bob Thiele. Who's Bob Thiele? Well, he's the nephew of four guys called Stanley, Clayton, George and Douglas. So on the rare occasions he wrote songs he credited them to either "Stanley Clayton" or "George Douglas". Had Bob Thiele written more songs, "Clayton George" or "Douglas Stanley" might have got a look-in, but in this case it fell to Uncle George and Uncle Douglas to get the honors. In between his occasional forays into songwriting, Bob Thiele was a record producer and label manager: He handled pop (the McGuire Sisters), rhythm'n'blues (Jackie Wilson), easy listening (Lawrence Welk) and early rock'n'roll (Buddy Holly), but his first love was jazz. He was married in the course of his life to three excellent vocalists (Jane Harvey, Theresa Brewer, Monica Lewis), and on album he performed equally adroit, if rather more transient, musical marriages, pairing Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane, John Coltrane with Duke Ellington, and Duke Ellington with Louis Armstrong. That last collaboration took place in 1961, and remained Bob Thiele's personal favorite of all the LPs he produced.
Six years after his Duke-Satch combo, Thiele was feeling depressed. In 1967 there was certainly a lot to be depressed about: race riots, war, anti-war protests. But Thiele wasn't depressed about that so much as he was depressed because he reckoned everyone else was getting over-depressed, because they were overlooking all the good things in life. So, with everyone being so down, he decided to write a song to perk 'em up - about all the stuff that makes life worth living:
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself
What A Wonderful World...
As noted, Bob Thiele was a very occasional songwriter, so, for a composing partner, he turned to an old friend. George David Weiss isn't exactly a household name like Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, but his catalogue includes our Song of the Week #46, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and #178, "Lullaby of Birdland". And, if you're thinking those two don't seem to have much in common, well, nor do "Wheel of Fortune" for Kay Starr and "Can't Help Falling in Love" for Elvis. Or the Broadway score of Mister Wonderful and "Let's Put It All Together" for the Stylistics. Or his first Number One, "Rumors are Flying" for the Frankie Carle Orchestra with vocal refrain by Marjorie Hughes, and "Stay with Me" for Lorraine Ellison, the Walker Brothers, Kiki Dee, Melissa Etheridge, Mary K Blige et al. But they're all George David Weiss songs. He was a big band arranger for Stan Kenton, and he scored movies, and sometimes he wrote words to other men's tunes, and sometimes he wrote tunes for other men's words, and sometimes he did a bit of crafty re-purposing, as with "Can't Help Falling in Love", which derives from "Plaisir d'Amour", composed by Jean-Paul-├ëgide Martini in 1784. So in theory he could have written any or all of "What a Wonderful World", but Thiele told me that Weiss stayed mostly down the musical end.
On the other hand, Weiss told Graham Nash (of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) that he wrote it with Louis Armstrong in mind - which suggests he also had a hand in the lyric.
On the other other hand is the story that it was first offered to Tony Bennett, who turned it down. I can see the logic of him doing so, if only because it's a wee bit too proximate to the sunny universalism of a Leslie Bricusse/Cyril Ornadel ballad he'd recently recorded:
If I Ruled The World
Ev'ry day would be the first day of spring...
Then again, Bennett can't have disliked it that much, because he recorded "Wonderful World" himself in 1970, and re-recorded it as the title song for a Louis Armstrong tribute album with k d lang in 2002.
But by now Thiele and Weiss had shown their song to Frank Military, a legendary music publisher who had a peerless instinct for matching the right song with the right singer. I'll give you two examples: he brought "Misty" to Johnny Mathis, and "New York, New York" to Frank Sinatra. I rest my case. And, even though Tony Bennett was one of Frank Military's best friends, in this instance the song-matching genius had someone else in mind.
I first came across Mr Military's name in a letter Sammy Cahn sent me, bashed out on the same typewriter he used for writing "Come Fly With Me" et al. But he'd put it in as a parenthesis ("Military, Frank") and so I assumed initially it was a nickname: "Military Frank" - presumably because he had a martial manner. Quite the opposite, in fact, and the name was Italian: Gram'pa Military came from Palermo. A year or so after that letter, Sammy introduced me to Mr Military at Warner Chappell's New York office, where I believe he held the title of Senior Executive Vice-President or some such. But that doesn't really convey the esteem in which he was held by singers and songwriters alike: He went back a long way with Bennett and Sinatra and Dean Martin - and with Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne and George David Weiss. Oh, and also Bob Thiele: Military and Thiele had briefly run their own management firm back in the early Fifties, handling Anita O'Day and various other canaries. The aforementioned Mr Styne, composer of Gypsy and Funny Girl, "Time After Time" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", liked to say, "Without the rendition, there is no song." Which is true. But it has to be the right rendition. You can get Snoop Dogg to render "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" and Dame Kiri te Kanawa to render "Kung Fu Fighting", and there's still no song. That's where Military came in. He liked "What a Wonderful World": It was a ballad of hope and optimism that transcended the times. But for that very reason it also required a singer who transcended the times.
A singer like, say, Louis Armstrong...
And, if you think that seems kind of obvious now, it certainly wasn't in 1967. If you pick up almost any jazz critic's biography of Satchmo, they generally follow the same basic arc: Terrific trumpeter, innovative musician - and then he sold out and did commercial pap for suburban hi-fi filler. I don't subscribe to that crude reductio myself, but it is true that, after he'd booted the Beatles off the top and taken "Hello, Dolly!" to Number One, the calculus changed somewhat for Armstrong's management: There's a new Broadway show opening? Take the big song and do another "Dolly" knock-off. Hence Satchmo's "Mame" and "Cabaret". (You can hear Jerry Herman talk about his bewilderment at Pops' success with "Dolly" here.)
As it happens, Frank Military was the guy who'd brought "Cabaret" to Armstrong. But he'd never brought him anything like "What a Wonderful World" before. Nevertheless, he and the writers met with Louis to pitch the song. As Bob Thiele recalled, "We wanted this immortal musician and performer to say, as only he could, the world really is great: full of the love and sharing people make possible for themselves and each other every day."
Instead, Satch peered at the sheet - unlike many singers, he was a musician who could read the music - and, when his eye got to the bottom of the page, he looked up and said:
What is this sh*t?
He was studying the music - no words, just a contemporary ballad tune that called not for Armstrong's tight jazzy All-Stars but for a string orchestra. I wouldn't myself say the tune was exactly "sh*t". From the C# passing tone under the first chord, it has a rather subtle harmonic quality that lends a conditional quality to the title: it's a hope that this can be kept "A Wonderful World" rather than a ringing declaration thereof.
But, as I said, Armstrong hadn't seen the lyrics. And, when they passed him the words, he fell in love. Not so much because of the green trees, red roses, blue skies, white clouds, but because of the final eight bars, which ditch the "colors of the rainbow" theme:
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself
What A Wonderful World...
That quatrain reminded him of 107th Street in Queens, the tree-lined block he and his wife Lucille had lived on for a quarter-century (and whose modest red-brick home now houses the Louis Armstrong Museum):
There's so much in 'Wonderful World' that brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona, New York. Lucille and I, ever since we're married, we've been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it's just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they're all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille ...and I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old. So when they hand me this 'Wonderful World,' I didn't look no further, that was it.
He was genuinely touched by the heartfelt optimistic simplicity of the sentiment, and its faith in the future - that a new generation would know things that he would never live to see. Like, er, Twitter. Well, let's not get hung up on the details. He was struck by the song's message, and so agreed to sing it.
An arrangement was made, musicians were booked, and a studio was procured - for a midnight session in Vegas, after Satch had finished up his set at the Tropicana. There was just one problem. Louis Armstrong had recently switched record labels, to ABC, and the president of the company, Larry Newton, was opposed to Satchmo doing "What a Wonderful World". I don't mean he was antipathetic or indifferent to it, or felt it was not a strong choice for a single but would be okay for Side 2 Track 5 of an album. I don't even mean that he disliked it. He loathed "What a Wonderful World" with a passion: He thought he'd signed the Number One bestselling pop star of "Hello, Dolly!", and he didn't want his new act doing what he regarded as the polar opposite of "Dolly" - a soporific inert crawl-tempo ballad. He's not necessarily mistaken about that. In the wrong hands, "What a Wonderful World" can be rather dirge-like. I know because my kid and his school pals chose it as their class song for their Eighth Grade graduation. By the end, the gym had been drained of every last iota of buoyant high-school-here-we-come eager anticipation that had filled the room only three minutes earlier. Don't worry, I'm not telling tales literally out of school: I'd warned them in advance to stick to something more Eighth Gradey, like "Put on a Happy Face".
So I'm not unsympathetic to Larry Newton's concerns. The trouble was that on August 16th 1967 he'd flown in to Vegas for a photo shoot with his new star and that evening he showed up at United Studios determined to prevent the recording. He went so totally bananas that Ed Thiele, as producer, and Artie Butler, the arranger, and George Weiss and Frank Military, who were also present, hustled him through the door and locked him out of the studio. Which isn't exactly conducive to Louis Armstrong recording a tender and sensitive ballad unlike anything he'd sung before:
I hear label presidents cry, outside the door
He should be back minding the store
And I think to myself
Why'd I sign with this guy?
It was a long session - either because of Newton's antics or because they were interrupted by the toots of passing Union Pacific freight trains, or because the material was a little outside Pops' comfort zone. They stayed there till 6am, and then they all went for breakfast. And the label only agreed to pay the orchestra for their extended shift on condition that Satchmo himself accept a mere $250 for the session. But it was worth it: Louis worked and worked on his interpretation until he and the writers were satisfied. I confess as a young child I always heard "the dark sacred night" as "the dark say goodnight", but once I'd grasped Satch's enunciation I appreciated what a fine pairing that makes with "the bright blessed day": it adds a subtle touch of the holy and transcendental to the song; that the world is not merely "wonderful" in the way that a great cheeseburger and a vanilla shake can be, but truly wonderful because it's the wonder of God's creation. But, as I said, it's discreetly done. And Armstrong's reading of the middle-eight, in that unmistakeable beautiful gravelly rasp, is as sincere and true as anything he ever sang:
The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying 'How do you do?'
They're really saying, 'I love you...'
Is that really what they're saying? Well, Pops bought into it. In the studio that night, representing all those children who'd grow to learn more than he'd ever know, was George Weiss' kid Peggy. "So you're George's daughter? Pleased to meet you!" And he shook her hand, and maybe, for a small, shrunken old man not in the best of health, it really did mean "I love you."
On television, Satch was even more enthusiastic, prefacing his performance with these words:
Seems to me, it ain't the world that's so bad but what we're doin' to it. And all I'm saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we'd give it a chance. Love, baby, love! That's the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we'd solve lots more problems. And then this world would be a gasser!
And, for those wondering what the hell all this hippie-dippie peace'n'love stuff had to do with Louis Armstrong, he waited to the very end to tie it back to his entire oeuvre in what, with hindsight, was the only possible wrap-up:
Larry Newton wanted another "Hello, Dolly!" Well, he got the last two words.
But he wasn't happy, and he swore to exact his revenge - by doubling down on the petty and stupid. In order to prove he was right about the song, he released the single in late 1967, but refused to promote it. He didn't ship it to radio stations, so no disc-jockeys played it, and nobody bought it. In those days, ABC's UK distribution was licensed to EMI, and, in the fullness of time, "What a Wonderful World" showed up at the London office, and they released it as a normal single. Actually, not that normal, because it was, I believe, the very last single EMI released on their HMV label. But, other than that, they did all the things you're meant to do with a new release: They sent review copies to the BBC and to trade magazines, and discovered what Larry Newton, once he'd gotten over being locked out of the studio, should have realized - that people really liked it. It entered the UK charts at the beginning of February 1968 at Number 45, cracked the Top Forty in its second week, the Top Thirty in its fourth, and then climbed through March and April up to Number One.
So, just for the record, where did it get to on the Billboard Hot 100?
Er, big hit sound Number 116.
In fact, Larry Newton's singular talent for sabotage was so effective that he wound up with a record that was a hit everywhere except his own territory: Top Thirty in Australia, Top Twenty in New Zealand and the Netherlands, Number Seven in Switzerland, Number Six in Belgium and Germany and Norway, Number Two in Ireland, Number One in Austria... What a wonderful world (America excepted). In London, EMI decided the song was so big they needed an album built around it. At which point Larry Newton decided to triple-down on the moronic. He agreed to the LP, but only if Armstrong did it for $500. Joe Glaser, Louis' manager, wasn't in the mood for that, and instructed Bob Thiele:
You tell that fat bastard to go f**k himself and give us $25,000 for eight more sides.
Larry Newton responded:
Tell him to go f**k himself, and why do we give a sh*t about these European companies? Screw 'em all.
They're really saying "I love you".
George Weiss and Bob Thiele wrote Pops a follow-up: "Hello, Brother", a slightly hokey paean to the working joe who just wants a fair shake. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and that's as it should be. As he had done so often, Frank Military had found the perfect singer for the song, and given a man whose career went back to the birth of jazz and the dawn of the recording industry his last big hit. Three years later, Louis Armstrong was dead. If you'd been listening to the radio in Britain, Europe, around the world in 1971, they marked his passing with "What a Wonderful World". On American stations, they played everything but.
And that's how things stayed for a couple of decades. One day in 1988 I went to see a new film about an American Forces Network disc-jockey in Vietnam - not because I particularly like Vietnam movies but because, as a former disc-jockey, I'm very partial to films about disc-jockeys. Good Morning, Vietnam was no Play Misty for Me, but Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer was one one of his better readings, and I enjoyed it. I was surprised, though, by Barry Levinson's sardonic use of "What a Wonderful World", and I remember wondering whether the real-life Mr Cronauer or any other AFVN jock had ever actually played the single in Saigon - especially as the picture was set in 1965, two years before the song was written. In Levinson's film, the record has pretty much the same effect on Vietnam as it had on Larry Newton: As Satchmo starts up, we see trees of green, skies of blue, clouds of white, happy smiling people working in the fields ...and then the bombs fall, and the villages burn, and terrified mothers clutch wounded children. Weiss and Thiele wrote their song to reassure us that, despite the hell of war, it's still a wonderful world. Levinson deployed it for the opposite effect: despite claims that this is a wonderful world, here's the hell we've made of it. Where one director blazed his trail through Vietnam villages, others have followed: Michael Moore used "Wonderful World" in pretty much the same way in both Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911.
But, as No├źl Coward appreciated, strange the potency of cheap music. American filmgoers saw Levinson's imagery, but they heard the song, and for the first time. And so Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" cracked the US Top Forty twenty years after it had hit Number One in Britain. And a great record finally achieved the recognition on its home turf it had known for a generation everywhere else. It doesn't matter that he was born in 1901; he sounds old and elegaic on the record, and that's the point: he's a fellow approaching the end of his life, but he's not bitter or even bittersweet; he's not looking back but looking forward to when those babies will grow. It's an old man, but it's a young song. That's why it's a popular father/daughter dance at weddings: It's the past blessing the future.
Almost half-a-century after his death, Armstrong remains one of the towering figures of American popular music and, if you love jazz, he is a giant and always will be. But, for millions of people around the world who don't know "West End Blues", "When the Saints Go Marching In", "Jeepers Creepers", "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" or even "Mack the Knife" and "Hello, Dolly!", Louis Armstrong is the man who sings "What a Wonderful World".
As for Larry Newton, well, I wasn't sure whether he was still with us or not, so I clicked on Wikipedia to check, and I read:
Newton is probably best remembered today for trying to stop Louis Armstrong from recording 'What A Wonderful World'.
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